Going to a Bob Dylan gig these days requires a certain sort of mindset. Worship, obviously, but also a readiness not to see or hear anything pleasant for two hours. The greatest fan of Dylan I have ever met wears earplugs during his concerts. And Dylan’s voice on his latest album occasionally sounds terrifyingly close to a death rattle. Last week, by way of preparation for a performance at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center my friend put himself on an expectation-suppressing diet of the worst ever Dylan tracks. “I listened to ‘Let’s Stick Together’ from ‘Down in the Groove,’” he reported, “Awful. Just dreadful, and the worst CD sound imaginable. Loved it!”
Brooklyn was Dylan’s last stop on a thirty-three city U.S. tour. And moments into his first set, he had us all wondering once again what we were doing there. As if to underline this question, a mirror was set up, front of stage—face-out. Without any sort of greeting, Dylan entered under his white brimmed hat and croaked “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” indecipherably from behind the keyboard. Only one word really came through: “Whoo-ee!” The earplugs went in next to me, the crowd dug in—silent, enduring. It looked like we were in for another terrible night, but as the song advanced one detected a devious energy in the delivery, a hint that he could give better. And he did—a lot better.
Old songs in new arrangements sounded as though they had just been written, and details to which he gave focused articulation, seemed alive with fresh experience. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, drained of bitterness and self-pity, was sung with mischief, and gentle curiosity. Lines like “You could have done better / But I don’t mind” became almost forgiving. In a haunting rendition of “Visions of Johanna,” he brought immediacy to the smallest fragments of narrative, singing of the room where “the heat pipes just cough” as though he’d just come from a small cramped apartment in the Village. And even when Dylan misses a line, it can seem palpably present to a fan in the grip of aural madness. In the same song, I thought I heard him whisper of “escapades out on the D train” as vividly as though he might have taken the D train to the Barclays Center that evening, but Earplugs (can he lip read Dylan?) turned to me moments after and said, “Skipped a line”.
As usual, there were some bizarre moments, including an almost incomprehensible version of “Things Have Changed.” Singing it from center stage, he abandoned the puppet-like moves that have characterized his dancing in recent years for something that looked a bit like fencing—airy thrusts of the arm at a phantom enemy. But he was enjoying himself, or seemed to be, singing the lines “I used to care, but things have changed” with wicked abandon.
Alongside a run of vitally executed regulars—“Ballad of Thin Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower”—recent works commanded their own atmosphere. In “Early Roman Kings” the air felt filthy with power and violence, and the band stomped through the song like a menacing assembly of imperial thugs. And perhaps best of all was an intimate, plaintive rendition of “Forgetful Heart,” accompanied by Donnie Herron on viola and punctuated with beautifully plangent harmonica playing from Dylan.
The band was as tight an ensemble as Dylan has had—some of the greatest sidemen in the world, expert Dylan-minders consummate in every genre and able to decipher even his most cryptic moves. But there were few opportunities for them to shine. I have seen Charlie Sexton step forward and play virtuosic guitar solos in the past, but on Wednesday night, he and his bandmates cowered in dark corners of the stage like diffident teenagers. It seemed that they were watching Dylan. Not just watching him because they were waiting for a cue or because they didn’t know what he would do next. They seemed to be watching Dylan like we were watching Dylan—amazed, scared, thrilled, grateful that, beneath all the layers of masquerade, this seventy-one-year-old was still getting up there night after night, still pulsing with authenticity, still doing just as he averred aged twenty-two—“I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it.” And—for now, at least—Dylan looks like this is exactly what he wants to be doing. Last week, more than ever, he seemed like the eponymous hero of his song, Handy Dandy, a sinister mingling of fop and rogue, insouciance and disquiet; “He’s been round the world and back again / Something in the moonlight still hounds him.”
Adelaide Docx is a British-born writer in New York City. She is the former American Associate Editor of Granta. Her short fiction has been published by N+1 and Shakespeare & Co’s Paris Magazine, and she has written short book reviews for The New Yorker and Time Out. She is an agent for classical musicians, and is working on her first novel, The Sabbatical.